The holidays are officially over, and for many of us, that means heading back to a job where we endure an all-to-common torment: the “stupid boss.” One of the most frequent requests I receive is for help with a “stupid boss.”
I work with leaders, but that doesn’t mean I blindly endorse every suit with authority. Stupid bosses are everywhere. When you consider how smart the average boss is, and then realize half of them are less smart, reality becomes pretty sobering.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity and disdain, you can make working for a stupid boss fun. Here are four ways how:
1. Be in service of your stupid boss. Whether your boss is stupid or a genius, remember that your job is to serve her. If you do happen upon a stupid one, help him out. Challenge yourself to find ways to enlighten him. Cover for him when he’s faced with something he cannot handle. Help him recognize and work on his gaps. Whenever possible, mask his stupidity. Be satisfied with his successes, even when you know they’re yours.
It’s much more fun to serve someone who needs your support than to sit back, criticize, and ridicule. And––with your help––you can hopefully accelerate her promotion so some other sucker has to deal with her.
2. Have empathy for stupid bosses. Many companies do a lousy job of recognizing, developing, and placing their talent. Despite the feel-good proclamations from human resources, deep down, we all know that it’s who you know, how you look, and who likes you that really determines who moves up.
Consequently, amiable, attractive, and stupid people are promoted into management and supervision every day. Is it their fault that the company rewards the superficial over substance? Do you really expect someone to say no to that big promotion by admitting, “Sorry. I’m just not ready to do that job.”? There is also a decent chance that the “Peter Principled” boss knows he’s in over his head––and that’s a horrible feeling we can all pity.
Another reality check: Your company may have elevated a person you consider stupid when the truth is your company values things you don’t, which means you and the organization may be an altogether bad match.
3. Start an anonymous weekly blog. Without divulging your or your boss’s identity, share the stupid things she does and says with the world. Call the blog something like, What My Stupid Boss Said Today. I could fill a blog for decades using all the stupid things my bosses have said over the years. Some favorites:
- “Stop trying to confuse me with the facts.”
- “This is a communications meeting. The last thing I want to do is answer a bunch of questions.”
- “I can explain it to you. I just can’t understand it for you.”
- “Performance this quarter was outstanding. Of course we did have those two fatal injuries, but other than that, I’m very proud of what we pulled off.”
- “I didn’t take this job to be liked.”
- “Send me a list of all the unforeseeable things that could go wrong.”
- “I’m glad we got everyone through that sexual harassment training and can finally put that subject to bed.”
- “Your concerns are all in your mind.”
- “Look at our productive time performance. Half of our units are below the group average!”
- “I have a very easy assignment that fits you perfectly.”
- “What if everyone performed at an exceptional level and got a top rating? Where would we be then?” (When defending the company’s forced ranking policy)
- “Don’t worry about me, I’ll find a way to cope without you.” (When firing a subordinate)
- “My first obligation is to protect the company.” (Human Resources Manager)
- “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” (Performance Analyst)
- “We had a fatality today. Thank God it was a contractor.” (Safety Manager)
- “If we inject water into the outflow, we can get the parts-per-million down so we’re within the discharge permit.” (Environmental Manager)
- “If I let you have a phone, then everyone who needs one will want one.” (IT Manager)
- “We all understand how difficult it is to work in the field, especially those of us here in the Admin Building.” (Plant Manager speaking to the Union Executive Board)
- “You seem to forget that you’re here for the company, not the other way around.” (VP of Social Responsibility)
- “There is absolutely no truth to that rumor. And if it ever comes out that there is, we will deny it categorically.” (VP of Public Relations)
- “You’ll have a job here as long as I need you and no longer.” (CEO at a “get to know the CEO luncheon for high potentials”)
4. Get beyond the boss’s “stupidity” and appreciate what he brings to the table. When I was a young engineer, I worked at a plant with a senior staff that made the Three Stooges look like a set of Einsteins. Several of the quotes above come from that trio.
The plant had the worst performance in the firm, union-labor relations were terrible, and morale was in the tank. Then, my department got a new manager; and of course we immediately complained to him about our stupid plant staff. But this manager understood that for us to perform our best we needed to get beyond the negative story we embraced about our leaders.
After emphasizing that our team’s job was to serve our plant staff and encouraging us to have empathy for their situation, he instituted a new practice: each Thursday, his administrator would take a Dilbert cartoon, erase the character’s captions, and send each of us a copy. We all then took our blank cartoon and filled in the captions with something that related to the plant, often including the plant staff. “Say with your cartoon what you want to say out loud but feel you can’t,” the new manager said.
Each Monday during our weekly staff meeting, he would share all of our cartoons with the group. We’d have a good laugh and vote on the best cartoon of the week. The team would then pay for the winner’s meal at our weekly team lunch, where our manager insisted that we not discuss work. He’d end the luncheon with each of us answering this question: “What do we appreciate or admire most about our senior staff?”
This approach caused three things to happen that completely changed our team’s perspective. First, we expressed our complaints about the plant staff in a useful and playful manner. Consequently, we came to realize we were taking the staff’s shortcomings way too seriously and using them as scape goats for the plant’s and even our own failures. Second, once we ran out of things about the staff to make fun of, we turned to each other and soon realized we were capable of being just as stupid. And finally, because we regularly discussed what we appreciated about the plant staff, we came to realize that they actually had some good qualities and were not quite as stupid as we’d believed.
Although the culture and conditions were by far the worst I’ve worked in, and the plant leadership was certainly not the sharpest, I look back on that team as the one I enjoyed working with most. We were the most productive––and had the most fun.
How could you transform your current situation in a similar way?